Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) -- Ysabeau S. Wilce
This underwater world is an illusion ... my Anima is translating Elsewhere into images I recognise and understand. I know the salmon are really elementals, the kelp is really ætheric energy, the coral is really fragments of old sigils, broken and encased with time. But the illusion is beautiful and I wish with all my Will that I could enjoy it, drift through the Current forever, give in to its pull, allow it to carry me away.
But I cannot. (p. 462)
Flora's Dare continues the story of Flora Fyrdraaca, just turned fourteen and now under the stern gaze of her newly-sober martinet father. (Her mother, the General, is absent for much of this novel: a shame.) Flora is wrestling with all manner of problems: a midnight curfew cramping her style; a best friend whose latest money-spinning scheme involves bounty-hunting and Sonoron Zombie Powder (one whiff of this stuff and you are no more wilful than a piece of cheese. They use it in Huitzil to control sacrifices and wanton wives (p. 35)); a crush on her mother's great enemy, Lord Axacaya; the problem of what to wear to the Warlord's Birthday Ball; the impossibility of finding a copy of yellowback novel Nini Mo vs. the Ice Weasels: the Ultimate Ranger Dare. And Flora's a growing girl, exploding out of her stays ...
As soon as I'd finished reading Flora Segunda I was greedy for this, the second in the trilogy: it doesn't disappoint, being quite as frothy and frivolous and fun as the first -- etiquette, fashion, honour, rock'n'roll -- with even darker undertones and some harrowing backstory. Murder, (attempted) rape, treason, arson, possession ... The treatment's never sensationalist or overly graphic, and often the more adult themes are merely hinted at. (A special mention to Madama Twanky's Nethersheaths, extra large.) The 'Flora' novels may be targeted at the YA audience, but Wilce handles some mature themes herein, and does so without heavy-handed moralising.
Indeed, perhaps a tad more moralising would've been acceptable: Flora, who is fourteen, does some pretty nasty things, yet doesn't seem to reflect upon them. There's not a lot of time for regret in the breakneck plot, but a girl who gets sentimental over a zombified duck might be expected to show some distress after killing a human being.
The primary plot thread -- in which the city of Califa is shaken by earthquakes caused by an imprisoned, enraged magickal entity -- spins out rather nicely, as does the tale of the capture of infamous criminal Springheel Jack, with his sparkly red snake-festooned 5-inch-heel boots. I confess, though, that my closest attention was on the backstory that's gradually being revealed. I'm fascinated by Hotspur's swashbuckling past and tragic love for Cyrenacia Brakespeare, a woman whose nicknames include the Whip and the Butcher, whose 'crimes were legendary and almost too long to list. Forgery, murder, treachery, treason, necromancy, grand theft ...' I'm avid for more of the family secrets that Flora uncovers, and hooked by her assertion that 'blood will out'. Oh, she's her mother's daughter, all right ...
There are a host of new characters in Flora's Dare; some anticipated, others familiar to readers of Wilce's short stories and novellas, yet others wholly new and unexpected. Lots of strong women: this is a gender-neutral world, in that gender has little or nothing to do with what a person does, or how they dress, or how they interact with others. On the other hand, it's still the women who bear children, wear ill-fitting stays, and have the worst toilets ...
I'm a little dubious as to how well some aspects of Flora's Dare work without any knowledge of those stories: for instance, I believe there's a reason for Flora's incredible luck. Though no doubt that'll be expanded (or confounded) in the third book.
Much is explained in this volume (the mysterious lights and weird events at Bilskinir House, abandoned and closed up since the death of the last of the Harðraaðas; the provenance and nature of the plush pig that somebody sent Flora on her fourteenth birthday; the Ultimate Ranger Dare), but there's a hell of a lot to be revealed in the third and final novel for which I cannot -- but must -- wait.